The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a 20th-century man. His struggle for freedom against state-enforced oppression was the 20th-century struggle. In this century the awful power of the state to do evil has been met by the awesome power of peaceful resistance grounded in the truth.
April 4, 1998, marked the 30th anniversary of King's assassination and it is proper to remember his civil rights achievements. A few insist on pointing out that he was a sinful man. But there is a broader lesson to be drawn from King's reading of the signs of the times—a lesson of particular interest for Catholics in the post-conciliar era.
King knew he was living in the era of human rights and human freedom. The main obstacle was state power wielded against its own people. The solution was to overthrow unjust laws through peaceful protests. The force employed was the power of witness to the truth about man. In this broad outline, King's movement can be understood as a particular application of the general principles that have increasingly informed the Church's social teaching since Vatican II.
A Death Foretold
On April 3, 1968, in Memphis, King delivered his most apocalyptic sermon. To read it now is to marvel at the afflatus that moved him on the last night of his life.
“Like anybody I would like to have a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that,” said King, reflecting on the threats to his life. “I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But we as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight.”
King's remarkable valedictory was full of gratitude for the times in which he lived. His preaching cadences began that night with a provocative question and answer. “If I were standing at the beginning of time, with a panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?’ I would turn to the Almighty and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’”
“Now that's a strange statement to make,” King conceded, “because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion is all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the 20th century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding—something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, the cry is always the same—We want to be free.”
In its great charter on the Church in our times, the Council taught, “Our contemporaries make much of freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly so. Authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man” (Gaudium et Spes, 17). While warning against the misuse of freedom, the Church has joined its voice, more in this century than ever before, to the cry of the masses yearning to be free.
In the decree on religious liberty, the Council opened itself fully to this growing cry, recognizing the increasing “sense of the dignity of the human person” and, “the demand that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations.” The Council declares these desires “to be greatly in accord with truth and justice” (Dignitatis Humanae, 1-2).
The Council took note of and doctrinally affirmed the spirit that animated King's movement, and similary inspired movements in other parts of the world. The full flowering of this teaching would have to wait for Pope John Paul II and the challenge to communism, but the Council Fathers provided here the foundation. Just as it would be difficult to imagine a 19th-century King figure, it would be difficult to imagine such Church teaching before the 20th century.
To adapt King's words, if the starlight of our times has been the focus on human freedom, then the great darkness against which it shines has been the brutality of state power suppressing that freedom. About this phenomenon the Holy Father wrote in 1991: “In the totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, the principle that force predominates over reason was carried to the extreme. Man was compelled to submit to a conception of reality imposed on him by coercion, and not reached by virtue of his own reason and the exercise of his own freedom” (Centesimus Annus, 29).
Mutatis mutandis, that analysis can be applied to examples not at the extreme, such as American segregation or South African apartheid. “That principle must be overturned,” continues the Holy Father, “and total recognition must be given to the rights of human conscience, which is bound only to the truth, both natural and revealed. The recognition of these rights represents the primary foundation of every authentically free political order.”
Dictates of Conscience
The call to make power submit to the dictates of conscience was the heart of King's philosophy of civil disobedience and protest. King recognized that state power could never legitimately demand what conscience would not allow, and the powers and principalities that so demand ceased to be legitimate. Operating in a country that holds law in the greatest esteem, it was incumbent upon King to argue that conscience demanded that some laws should be disobeyed.
This he did in his Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, dated April 16, 1963. Written while serving a sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, the open letter was addressed to white clergymen who urged King not to inflame the civil rights issue, but to wait upon the initiative of the courts. Frustrated by the “white moderate who is more committed to ‘order’ than to justice,” and who prefers “the negative peace which is the absence of tension to the positive peace which is the presence of justice,” King explained why he could not obey unjust laws.
Arguing passionately that his approach was rooted in the Christian tradition, King turned to two doctors of the Church, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. “I would agree with St. Augustine,” he wrote, that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God,” King further explained. “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”
It is a centuries-old principle, but given particular application by King: “Segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful.”
If that sounds familiar to students of the recent Magisterium, it should. Pope John XXIII quoted the same passage of St. Thomas to make the same point in 1963. “Authority is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees enacted in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience” (Pacem in Terris).
Pope John's encyclical on peace, Pacem in Terris, is dated April 11, 1963. It is testimony to the 20th-century Christian rediscovery of human dignity and freedom that in the same week, the Pope from the Vatican and a Southern Baptist preacher from his jail cell would remind their brethren that true peace can be found only where man is allowed the freedom to obey the truth he recognizes by his conscience.
The struggle for that freedom is never easy. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed,” wrote King. The lesson of our century is that the oppressed can effectively demand their freedom without recourse to arms and violence. The oppressed have the awesome power of truth on their side, and can bring this to bear on the unjust law.
“One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly and with a willingness to accept the penalty,” wrote King in Birmingham. “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.”
It is not new to claim that the martyr is the true law-abiding citizen and the true patriot. What the example of King and others teach is that the witness of the oppressed, exercised insistently and creatively, has a power to bring about change in a relatively short period of time. It is a witness born of conscience and aimed at conscience—the conscience of the oppressed giving rise to the witness that enlightens the conscience of the oppressor.
The Holy Father's analysis of the overthrow of communism is apposite here: “The events of 1989 are an example of the success of willingness to negotiate and the Gospel spirit in the face of an adversary determined not to be bound by any moral principles. These events are a warning to those who, in the name of political realism, wish to banish law and morality from the political arena” (Centesimus Annus, 25).
Vast possibilities for constructive change are created by those who refuse to banish the Gospel spirit from public life. King's legacy can be understood as a successful application of the recent social teaching of the Magisterium on the centrality of human dignity and freedom in the political order. Indeed, King's successful application of those principles may have contributed to their recognition by the Magisterium, which must always be alert to the signs of the times.
In his last Sunday morning sermon, delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Passion Sunday, four days before he died, King spoke about the three great revolutions of his lifetime. He identified a technological revolution, a revolution in warfare due to atomic weapons, and “a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion taking place all over the world.”
George Weigel, a senior fellow of the Washington based Ethics and Public Policy Center, quotes Oxford historian Sir Michael Howard to the effect that the two great revolutions of the 20th century have been the Bolshevik revolution and the transformation of the Catholic Church into the world's foremost defender of human rights. On the one hand, a revolution in the service of state power, and on the other, a revolution in the service of human freedom.
Malevolent state power and human freedom have been the principal opposing forces of the century in which Martin Luther King would have chosen to live. For him and so many other Christians, especially Catholics in the conciliar era, the joy of the millennium will be to sing out, as he did in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at last.”
Raymond de Souza is a seminarian for the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.